Banner Blindness: a problem from the past?

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According to Wikipedia, web banner or banner ad is a form of advertising on the World Wide Web delivered by an ad server. This form of online advertising entails embedding an advertisement into a web page. It is intended to attract traffic to a website by linking to the website of the advertiser. […] Many web surfers regard these advertisements as highly annoying because they distract from a web page’s actual content or waste bandwidth. Newer web browsers often include options to disable pop-ups or block images from selected websites.

Recently I took the time to read a series of articles on advertising and web usability written by Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group. These articles explain the findings and conclusions from the eyetracking research produced by Nielsen and his team, which was published almost a decade ago (my fault for discovering them now, but anyway they worth the read). They use the concept Banner Blindness (originally coined by Benway and Lane) to describe the fact that users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement, whether or not it’s actually an ad.

Banner Blindness describes the fact that users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement, whether or not it’s actually an ad.

At all levels of user engagement, their findings showed the same regarding banners: almost no fixations within advertisements. Nielsen states that if users are looking for a quick fact, they want to get done and aren’t diverted by banners; and if users are engrossed in a story, they’re not going to look away from the content. Often, users didn’t even see the advertiser’s logo or name, even when they glanced at one or two design elements elsewhere inside an ad.

Nowadays even your mother knows what a banner ad is (yes, maybe she doesn’t recognize the term itself, but I’m sure she knows how annoying they can be while surfing on her favorite web sites). Most of us use them as one of the key elements in our online advertisement strategy. There are several online platforms to target ads and auction them to the highest bidder. And everybody has convinced us that they are a good way of making our business grow.

However, we should ask ourselves (taking into account the studies from Nielsen and others) if banner ads are a worthwhile way of expending our marketing budget due to the annoying perception they entail (and the Banner Blindness problem). Or if, at least, there are ways out there to do better.

Banner Ad Design: Lessons Learned

We don’t do advertising as we did ten years ago (at least I want to believe that). We’ve learned a lot about advertising effectiveness, sometimes the hard way, sometimes reading the experiences of others. And through this evolution we’ve gathered a know-how related to what’s bad and what’s good for banner ad design.

What’s Bad

At User Experience 2004 conference, John Boyd from Yahoo! and Christian Rohrer from eBay presented “The rise of intrusive online advertising and the response of user experience research at Yahoo!“. On the article (which has become very popular, and I’ve to admit that I’ve also found it through another article from Nielsen that references it) they explain how -badly- users perceive online advertising. The prior goal of their research was to understand the nature and negative impacts of online advertising on user experience, in order to change the way of thinking when choosing ad formats, ad characteristics, and where ads are best placed within the Yahoo! network.

From their findings and my own experience as a web user, the following list contains 6 elements and design decisions that are bad for advertising effectiveness and even may harm user experience:

  • Pop-up advertisement covering the content users really want to see
  • OS/Browser UI mimic to trick users into clicking on it
  • Don’t say what the advertisement is for
  • Floating and moving around (even chasing mouse movement)
  • Blinking
  • Music/Video auto playing

I’m pretty sure you suffered some of them in the past. However, things are changing and web usability is becoming a priority even for online advertisers.

What’s Good

There are several guidelines we should follow in our online campaigns (apart from taking the previous list the other way around, that is, doing the opposite instead of what’s there). Here is a brief summary of what you can find looking at several online resources on this topic:

  • The more an ad looks like part of your specific page, the more users will look at it
  • Make the users’ options clear (click, fill a form, …)
  • Use plain explanations, don’t use marketing jargon
  • Use targeted advertising when possible (show them what they are interested in)
  • Make advertisements fit with the user’s goal in your web
  • Balance the amount of ad intrusiveness and the quality of user experience in your site

Is Your Web Causing Banner Blindness To Your Visitors?

Now that we have a clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t, the question that arises is how effective are the banner ads in our site? And even better, are my visitors suffering from banner blindness?

To answer this question, we can spend money in an eyetracking study of our web site with real users in order to see if they ignore your banner ads. Unfortunately, using eyetracking technology to follow people’s eye movement as they attempt to accomplish activities on your website is not always a real option. Moreover, this kind of research is not cheap because of the technology and the need of finding people to participate in the study that could match your visitors’ profile.

However, here’s where Heatmaps and Clickmaps come to the rescue. They provide us with the possibility of getting graphical representations of where our real visitors click or spend time with their cursor on our site (which is the closest and cheapest approximation to eyetracking studies). Clickmap and heatmap experiments can help you better understand your visitors because you can track what appeals to them. Furthermore, you can also see clearly which areas on your site are hot-spots and, in the end, you may use this information to improve your site.

It’s really easy to discover through a heatmap and clickmap of your site whether your banner ads are seen and clicked by your visitors or not.

For the case of banner blindness, it’s really easy to discover through a heatmap and clickmap if your banner ads are being seen and clicked by your visitors. Just take a quick look at the colors in the graphical representation of the heatmap and clickmap to verify this.

Screenshot showing a heatmap created by the Nelio A/B Testing service.
Heatmaps are one of the most powerful tools available to comprehend what users do in your website. Here you can see that although the main content gets most attention, sidebars (where banner ads are placed) also get some relevance.

Apart from that, it is also possible to use general web analytics to see the number of clicks a banner ad gets, but (I have to tell you) the results are not as visually shocking as with heatmaps and clickmaps. And if you’re using WordPress (and if don’t, you should, for many reasons), getting the heatmaps and clickmaps of your site has never been that easy with Nelio A/B Testing. Try our service and let us know if your site produces banner blindness or not. We’ll help you fix it!

The Banner Blindness Cure

We can certainly cure banner blindness, driving more success for advertisers and publishers alike, by simply increasing banner ad relevance and convenience. We have to rethink the ads themselves, as well as how and when they’re served, and develop new and engaging units that will appeal to banner-blind audiences. To heal from banner blindness, A/B Testing is a powerful remedy. Thanks to this technique we are able to create alternative versions of a banner ad, show each version to a portion of our visitors, and measure which one gets more clicks (or more leads). We can even place the banner ads in different locations in our webs and see which one is more effective. And all of this without any help from developers or designers.

To heal from banner blindness, A/B Testing is a powerful remedy

After every successful A/B testing experiment, we’ll learn and improve our site with new relevant banner ads or locations on the page. Step by step, you’ll notice that your advertising conversion rates are tremendously improved while banner blindness disappears. And when banner ads perform better, publishers, advertisers, and consumers win.


Antonio obtained his PhD in Computer Science at UPC. He has several publications in the field of data mining and information retrieval applied to conceptual modeling and health informatics. He specialized in the design, development, and integration of web services and cloud applications. He's an active contributor to the WordPress community and participates in meetups, seminars and WordCamps.

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